Juuust A Bit Outside

On Thursday we took a look at the pitchers with the highest percentage of Pitch F/X-recorded pitches right down the middle of the plate.  I listed the top thirty out of the 165 pitchers with significant numbers and found that Ted Lilly of the Cubs has thrown the highest percentage; on top of that, the next pitcher on the list found himself relatively far off.  Today we are going to look at the opposite: The pitchers with the highest percentage of pitches outside the zone.
Now, outside the zone calls for four general parameters: very high, very low, outside to the left, and outside to the right.  I feel like I’m typing the Cha-Cha slide.
For now I am going to focus on the left/right parameters outside the strike zone, and we will explore high/low a bit later in the year as I have other ideas centering around those parameters.  As discussed previously, the strike zone on a general pitch location chart goes from -0.83 to 0.83 on the horizontal axis and 1.6 to 3.5 on the vertical axis.  To track pitches down the middle the axis numbers were set much smaller.  To track pitches outside the zone the horizontal axis numbers branch out in different directions.  For pitches outside to the left I set my database to give me all pitches with a PX (horizontal location in the data) less than -1.55 as well as greater than +1.55.
This provided me plenty of pitches to analyze but keep in mind that the data was not insanely consistent last year with regards to who gets recorded and where the recording takes place.  This year it has become more consistent and uniform but there may be data discrepancies due to some players having insufficient data.  For instance, Player A might be known to throw a ton of pitches out of the zone but, because the Pitch F/X system did not track many of his starts, he might not qualify. 
To help ensure the pitchers in the below leaderboard did not fall into this statistical fallacy, a minimum of 240 raw pitches was set.  That certainly whittled the list down.  The total tracked pitches were then recorded for all remaining pitchers, and they were then sorted by % instead of raw total.  Here are the top ten:
1) Livan Hernandez, 15.83%
2) Derek Lowe, 12.43%
3) Jake Peavy, 12.39%
4) Chad Gaudin, 11.56%
5) Braden Looper, 11.56%
6) John Smoltz, 11.40%
7) Jamie Moyer, 11.20%
8) Justin Germano, 11.01%
9) Jeff Francis, 10.73%
10) A.J. Burnett, 10.71%
I did not necessarily predict that Livan would be atop this leaderboard but, at the same time, it was not very surprising to find his name there, with a significant lead over the next pitcher nonetheless.  Moyer didn’t surprise me either as he’s a notorious “junkballer.”  Here are 11-20:
11) Jarrod Washburn, 10.59%
12) Carlos Zambrano, 10.05%
13) Shaun Marcum, 10.03%
14) Tim Hudson, 9.78%
15) Javier Vazquez, 9.66%
16) Kevin Millwood, 9.63%
17) Jose Contreras, 9.54%
18) Miguel Batista, 9.33%
19) Roy Halladay, 9.29%
20) Vicente Padilla, 9.14%
Something really interesting here is the emergence of Burnett, Marcum, and Halladay.  I noted in the comments on Thursday that, of pitchers with significant data, Burnett, Marcum, and Halladay were in the bottom ten of percentage of pitches thrown right down the middle; here they are in the top twenty of pitches thrown outside the zone.  I noted at Fangraphs a week or two ago that the Blue Jays rotation, arguably the best in the bigs both last year and this year, consisted of three guys (McGowan, Marcum, Litsch) who threw four or five different pitches at least 10% of the time, somewhat of an extreme rarity.  Additionally, Halladay has a potent three-pitch combo, and Burnett has a plus-fastball and plus-curveball.
Put together it seems like the Blue Jays pitchers are spreading their pitch selections quite liberally, rarely making mistakes in throwing the ball right down the middle, and not worrying about being outside the strike zone.  Perhaps this means nothing with regards to their performance, but it is interesting nonetheless that a rotation like this appears in the leaderboards in three different areas of selection/location.
As we get deeper into the season enough data will be compiled to look at both down the middle and outside pitches solely for 2008, when the data is tracked in each park.  For now, though, we’ll have to settle with Ted Lilly and Livan Hernandez.  If only those two faced each other this year.

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4 Responses to Juuust A Bit Outside

  1. dan says:

    These pitches thrown outside of the zone include balls that were swung at (such as a pitch in one of Vlad’s at bats)?
    Someone I’ve always found weird with regards to strike-throwing is Tom Glavine. I’ve never looked into his pitch f/x data, but the strikes/balls/pitches data on Fangraphs shows that he throws ~59% strikes (since 2002), which is below the major league average of about 61% IIRC. But we all know Glavine is an extreme control pitcher, walking just over 3 per 9 IP for his career.
    After this finding, and reading the last 2 posts here, I’m starting to think that throwing the ball over the plate all the time isn’t as important as we thought it was. If Maddux throws the ball right down the middle, and never faster than 85 mph, how meaningful can it be?

  2. Dan, the pitches were everything. I didn’t discriminate against those swung at or those taken. I originally had 51,993 pitches to work with. I then removed the 3456 Intentional Balls or Pitchouts, leaving me 48,537.
    Of them, 4.96% were swinging strikes or balls put in play. That’s just 2409 of the 48,537.
    The other 95.04% were balls.
    The last part of your comment, could you elaborate, because it might be something I can look into. Do you mean that conventional wisdom that pitches down the middle being terrible is potentially wrong, or that being inaccurate isn’t necessarily bad? Or something different?

  3. dan says:

    As far as I know, conventional wisdom says that pitchers should throw strikes, and the more that happens the better off they will be. Obviously this is true, for the most part, but when looking at the success that Glavine has had overall, and how he rarely walks a batter, it doesn’t seem to be a hard and fast rule. In other words, Glavine throws a below average number of strikes, but somehow rarely walks batters.
    For reference, Jonathan Sanchez (career 4.80 BB/9) throws a higher percentage of strikes than Glavine does. So based on a sample size of one (and another in the paragraph that follows this), it would seem like throwing the ball over the plate all the time is not necessary.
    Next, in the previous article, we saw that Maddux throws a high % of balls right down the middle. Maddux has probably done this a lot over his career– I doubt he just started doing this this season. Now if Maddux can have such astonishing success while throwing the ball right down the middle at 84 mph, how bad can it be? That same question goes for the other pitchers on that list (Beckett, Lincecum, etc.), although they throw harder, so one can see how they could get away with it.
    These two pitchers lead me to believe that these are both possible: 1) It is not necessary to throw a lot of strikes in order to be successful (overall strike/ball ratios aren’t very meaningful, it’s when you throw each that matters), and 2) it’s not a bad thing to throw the ball right down the middle, as some people believe.
    I hope that clears it up a little bit (although it might have just made it more confusing).

  4. Well, the conventional wisdom would be to throw strikes, not balls right down the middle. Then again, throwing effective strikes is better than just strikes. Something Josh Beckett used to do to Pat Burrell and I’m sure other hitters, is throw an up and in fastball, and then throw his devastating hook. The curve would start heading right towards their heads but would come right back to the inside corner, freezing them in the process.
    So, Glavine is/has been successful not necessarily due to his strike% but rather his accuracy in hitting the corners and forcing the batters to make bad decisions.
    I don’t think it’s anything groundbreaking that you don’t have to throw strikes all the time to be successful but the second part is interesting; however, I wouldn’t personally risk throwing the ball down the middle after seeing where all the HR balls from the top 20 HR surrendering pitchers have been, from the articles last week.

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